This election is, unfortunately, not about policy. It’s a popularity contest. A polarity contest. It’s about proving how bad the other candidate is. Both Trump and Clinton have terrible favorability ratings. Clinton is seen unfavorably by 55 percent of the nation and Trump is seen unfavorably by 70 percent of the nation.
Policy, however, matters. And Trump’s foreign policy, where it exists, is frightening.
Below is a brief compilation of stated “policies” from his interview this week with the New York Times. (Statements are edited for brevity and clarity—because Trump says a lot of unclear, irrelevant things.)
On combating ISIS
NYT: “You’ve been a little vague about what we’d do with ISIS other than bomb the hell out of them.”
Trump: “I don’t want to be specific because I don’t want ISIS to know what I’m planning. I do have ideas, very strong ideas on ISIS.”
No one is asking Trump to give us coordinates; we’re just looking for a basic strategy, apart from previously stated tactics of killing the families of terrorists, torture, and having “unbelievable intelligence.”
On NATO and honoring our pledge
NYT: “I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?”
Trump: “I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do.”
NYT: “They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obliged—”
Trump: “We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.”
NYT: Can the members of NATO, including new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations—”
Trump: “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.”
NYT: “And if not?”
Trump: “Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligation to us.”
Twice here Trump openly admits he doesn’t want to tell us what he thinks—“I don’t want to tell you what I’d do,” and “I’m not saying if not.” What other choice does the American public have except to believe he doesn’t know how he would address these issues? His answers, and his complete lack of answers, were objected to by the White House, the military, and top Republicans, even among his supporters. This statement came only hours after his newly-appointed VP pick, Mike Pence, told the nation that the United States will always stand with its allies.
Also, there’s been quite an uproar among Trump supporters because of Ted Cruz’s lack of an endorsement for Trump during his RNC speech (Bravo, Ted!). The criticism is that Cruz signed a pledge, along with the 16 other Republican candidates, at the beginning of the presidential race, that he would throw his support behind the eventual GOP candidate, and now is backing out of that pledge because of Trump’s attacks on Cruz’s wife and father. How, I ask, can Donald Trump or any Trump supporter ever question someone’s loyalty to pledges when Trump himself admits he is willing to betray our nation’s commitment to our allies?
On our alliances and treaties
NYT: “In our conversation a few months ago, you were discussing pulling back from commitments we can no longer afford unless others pay for them. You were discussing a set of alliances that you were happy to participate in.”
Trump: “I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth—you have the tape going on? With massive wealth. Massive wealth. We’re talking about countries that are doing very well. Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’”
Okay, perhaps this applies to large, wealthy countries like Japan, Germany, and Korea, but a lot of our allies are not “massively wealthy.” This cannot possibly apply to small, poor, vulnerable countries like Estonia and Lithuania, but it seems, for Trump, it does. Again, Trump critiques Cruz for ‘breaking his pledge,’ and here Trump goes talking about breaking pledges willy-nilly.
On bringing Turkey and the Kurds together
NYT: “And what’s your diplomatic plan for doing that?”
Trump: “Meetings. If I ever have the opportunity to do it, meaning if I win, we will have meetings, we will have meetings very early on.”
Meetings? Anything else? Another instance of obvious ineptitude and deliberate vagueness to hide that ineptitude.
On Syria’s Assad
NYT: “You would keep Assad there if he’s also fighting ISIS?”
Trump: “I don’t want to say that, I have a very specific view on Assad, but I think we have to get rid of ISIS before we get rid of Assad.”
What does Trump have to say? Nothing, it seems. He claims he has a view—”a very specific view”—but he won’t tell the American people what it is.
NYT: “Would you amend or change Nafta?”
Trump: “Oh, without question.”
NYT: “Tell us how.”
Trump: “Without question. Nafta—”
Literally, this is all he says on the matter. I’m not cutting out some answer to the question of ‘How?’ He simply vows to amend or change Nafta—or abolish it—and then goes on a spree about how terrible Nafta is. He offers a total of zero suggestions for actually amending it. This is a man with a million complaints and no ideas. I thought he was supposed to be the visionary?
On Turkey’s failed coup
NYT: “Erdogan put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”
Trump: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country…. I don’t know that we have a right to lecture. Just look about what’s happening with our country.”
So we cannot comment on civil liberties in other countries, about the unalienable rights and political freedoms of human beings, simply because we have crime in our own? I appreciate that we should not be hypocritical as a nation, but if we have to have a perfect society before we can challenge others to permit freedoms of speech and conscience, then we will never be able to move forward.
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As a political outsider, I don’t expect Trump to be a foreign policy expert. But is it too much to ask that the American people have a Commander in Chief of at least middling foreign policy education or experience? Shouldn’t that be a requirement for the most powerful leader in the world, for the one charged with guiding the United States military, for whoever represents our country to foreign leaders and dignitaries?
Trump, however, has proven time and time again that his foreign policy insights are flat and often foolhardy. He’s said international nuclear rearmament wouldn’t be so bad. He said the United States should seize oil fields in Iraq and Libya to “reimburse ourselves” for our war expenses in those countries. He said he’d send 20,000-30,000 American troops into Syria (he’s also said no boots on the ground; it’s confusing). He also said he would order our military to commit war crimes. And when asked, What if they refuse, Trump said: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me.” These are only a few of the examples. Look at this master list for more.
Perhaps we can say Trump doesn’t mean the things he says. Perhaps he can plead ignorance. But just as his “policies” don’t warrant his presidency, neither do his incompetencies.